Interview: Dr Brian Boyle On SKA

We've covered the SKA previously, looking specifically at how the NBN and associated fibre technologies are helping in Australia's bid for the world's largest telescope. I sat down with Dr Brian Boyle from the CSIRO to dig into the specifics of Australia's SKA bid and its importance to Australian science. Here's the first part of that interview.

Dr Brian Boyle holds the title of director of the SKA project; there's no better person to talk to regarding Australia's bid for the world's largest radio telescope.

Giz Au: So, the SKA pitch is in progress and being decided at the moment. What kind of timeframe is it?

Dr Brian Boyle: We've submitted a detailed response to a RFI in terms of responding to all the key site characteristics; that is things like freedom from radio frequency interference; long term protection for that, cost of infrastructure and other factors including other socioeconomic issues, security and so on. That submission is being considered by an expert group of 12 people; independent people who haven't been connected with the project to date.

They'll interview both proponents in London in early December, and then they'll make a recommendation based on evaluation of the sites against all those criteria to the international board in February 2012; that board will go through the recommendation and make a decision shortly thereafter; one would imagine in March 2012.

Giz Au: In terms of Australia -- why place the SKA in Western Australia?

Dr Brian Boyle:I've got to be careful how I answer that; as you can appreciate this is a tender process, so I'm not in the business of making a pitch to anybody, so I'm certainly not going to engage in any comparative measures between ourselves and the South African proposal. But within Australia, why Western Australia in particular?

Because within Australia, Western Australia has a vast resource of freedom from radio frequency interference; it's in the middle of a relevant part of WA where we have a very very low population density; in particular where we're proposing to locate the core of the SKA is right in the middle of the shire of Murchison; a shire of 50,000 square km, so it's about 25 per cent larger than the Netherlands, but it's only got a population of 110 people -- or two nanopeople per square meter!

So, because people are spread far apart, and so are other users of the land, so there's plenty of opportunity for us not only of course to get away from the man-made radio noise that can interfere with our sensitive listening to the heavens, but also we can protect that environment, and can protect without undue impact on other users of radio spectrum, because everyone is so far apart.

In Australia we've also got a very highly developed infrastructure; we've got fibre optic networks that run throughout Australia, including our academic research network, so that provides the data communications that we would require in order to bring together the data from 3,000 antennas across Australia and New Zealand -- and bringing it together at data rates that exceed the current global internet traffic.

Giz Au: How does New Zealand play into the SKA bid?

Dr Brian Boyle: Part of the array would be located in New Zealand; New Zealand helps increase the maximum baseline from 3,000km to 5,000km. The amount of resolution that you can see in the sky is directly proportional to the baseline; so New Zealand's participation increases the resolution by 66%. NZ Scientists and industry are also involved. The SKA is essentially a massive IT machine. We have the antennas to recieve the data, but thereafter it's very much an information, communications and technology telescope. We're transmitting the data across 3,000km at hundreds of terabits per second; we require data processing at the exaflop scale and data storage at that scale as well -- both comfortably beyond what we're currently able to provide.

Giz Au:How important is the SKA to Australian science?

Dr Brian Boyle: I think the SKA is an important project for the world. It's going to address some of the most fundamental problems in astronomy and physics. Australia has been a lead player in astronomy in the last 50 years, and our view is that you'll get the best science out of the SKA by putting it on the best site. We support a merit-based process which would allow the SKA project to determine that best site.

Giz Au: You've also got the SKA Pathfinder project

Dr Brian Boyle: Yes, that's right. The Australian SKA Pathfinder is a little bit like an SKA in miniature; a 1 per cent model in terms of number of antennas and the footprint on the ground. The ASKAP project is more than just a test bed for the SKA; it's going to be a world class telescope in its own right.

It'll be the world's fastest radio survey telescope, and it achieves that by trialling some revolutionary new technology that we hope will get taken up in the SKA, and that is a 100 pixel radio camera. That might not seem like a lot when you compare it to your megapixel optical CCDs, but for radio astronomy, this is more than an order of magnitude leap forward in our ability to image the sky.

ASKAP will the first antenna to demonstrate the usage of this type of technology, and we hope that it will be revolutionary. Of course, ASKAP also demonstrates the strength and quality of the Murchison Radio Astronomy Observatory, where it's located, and would be our core site for the SKA. ASKAP also helps us work with local industry to work out the arrangements that will help us maximise our benefits in our involvement in the SKA project.

Giz Au: And that project still goes ahead even if the SKA bid were to go to South Africa?

Dr Brian Boyle: Absolutely. All 36 telescopes will be on the ground by the middle of next year, and we'll be starting our first observations at the same time. I'm very much looking forward to some of the exciting science that will come out of that in the short term.

Giz Au: And if the SKA goes ahead, would ASKAP become part of the SKA, or an additional project alongside it?

Dr Brian Boyle: That's unknown at this stage; it's very difficult to determine. I think what we'll have to do is see how the site decision turns out, and then see what is best for scientists around the world in terms of operating radio astronomy facilities.

Part Two Tomorrow: The SKA's impact: Exploding black holes, the Big Bang and little green men with airports. Image: ANZSKA